Court employee admits taking bribe to fix drug defendant’s sentence

A former employee at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has admitted that she accepted a $600 bribe in exchange for fixing a sentence for a criminal defendant.

Cassandra Johnson, 50, the former head of the court’s community service office, pleaded guilty Nov. 25 to filing a false public record and accepted two years of probation. By doing so, she avoided prison time and the far more serious charges she had faced.

Johnson was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs in April and booked with a series of corruption charges: public bribery, corrupt influencing, malfeasance in office and injuring public records. Combined, they could have brought her a decade or more in prison.

However, prosecutors agreed to whittle down the charges in exchange for her guilty plea to filing a false public record, a felony punishable by up to five years. Prosecutors also agreed to a two-year suspended sentence and a $800 fine.

The case against Johnson began in March when a convict, sentenced to 75 hours of community service for a crack-cocaine conviction, told police she had offered to erase his community-service requirement in exchange for $700.

The man said he had met Johnson’s boyfriend, Willie Griffin, 55, on the street, and Griffin, who had a drug conviction and another pending charge of his own, allegedly told the man that his girlfriend “could make all his problems go away,” according to court records.

Griffin then allegedly introduced him to Johnson, who offered to doctor the court records to reflect that he’d put in his 75 hours when he’d done none. She asked for $700 in exchange.

The convict alerted New Orleans police, and investigators listened in when he called Johnson, negotiated a lower fee of $600 and made arrangements to meet her that afternoon in the 100 block of Bienville Street. He wore a wire and brought $600 in marked, photocopied bills to the meeting.

Griffin met him there and demanded the cash, according to court records, but the defendant said he would make the transaction only with Johnson, who was nearby. She drove to meet them and the convict got into her car.

The pair spoke briefly, he handed over the money and Johnson told him the case would be “closed as promised,” according to court records.

Two days later, the court’s clerk entered a note in his file. “The Office of Community Service notified the court that the defendant as a condition of his probation performed 75 hours of community service work through the Criminal District Court community service program,” it reads. “As of this date, the defendant has performed all hours assigned.”

Johnson, who had worked for the court at a salary of $28,000 a year since 2009, was fired.

Griffin also was booked with public bribery, corrupt influencing and filing a false public record. The District Attorney’s Office pursued only the public-records charge against him, and that case remains pending.

Attorney David Capasso, who represented both Johnson and Griffin, declined to comment on Griffin’s case, citing the open charges.

In addition to the corruption charge, Griffin — who has a conviction for heroin possession — faces pending counts of possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of heroin, possession with the intent to distribute cocaine and possession of marijuana.

Capasso said Johnson is kind person who made a bad decision and was willing to take responsibility for that mistake. She now works with people in nursing homes.

“I hope she can move on with her life and continue to serve the public,” Capasso said. “It was a very unfortunate situation.”

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro hailed Johnson’s guilty plea to a felony as evidence of his office’s commitment to weeding out corruption at the courthouse.

He said her misdeeds corrupted the basic principles of crime and punishment: After the legal system gave someone a break, sentencing him to probation and community service, Johnson tried to use that for her own gain, he said.

“If we find misconduct in the Criminal District Courthouse involving employees, we’re certainly going to investigate it and prosecute it aggressively,” Cannizzaro said.

Johnson’s case lingered as the criminal court judges, one by one, recused themselves, citing her prior employment at the courthouse. Judge Walter Rothschild, retired from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal, was appointed to preside over her case.